The Patience of Stonehenge

Stonehenge moss

The Gooley family spent Sunday afternoon mucking about at Stonehenge and then heating baked beans and pasta on the VW campervan stove. A modern, but not very, ceremony that paid homage to some ancient rituals.

I was perhaps the only tourist walking around the perimeter who was taking note of the varying moss and lichen growth as I worked my way round the stones from the north side through west, south, east and back. It wasn’t the subtle shifts in colour that held my thoughts though.

There is surprisingly little that is properly understood about Stonehenge, but some solid deductions are possible. The alignment of the stones confirms a true understanding of solstices by its architects. It is tempting to think that solstices were a widely understood phenomenon even in ancient times and not give this aspect much more thought, but that would be to do a disservice to the Stonehenge people. While it is very easy to understand the principle of the sun’s rising and setting moving from a northern to southern extreme from midsummer to midwinter, it is a different matter being able to pinpoint the spot the sun will rise and set on the solstice days from an exact location. The modern observer still uses either sophisticated technology or tables to do this. It did not require any great leap in thought or development of technical ability to do this in ancient times, but it did require considerable patience and dedication.

The erecting of the stones themselves would have taken physical determination (about thirty million hours of it apparently) and some skill, but the correct positioning of them would almost certainly have required observation from a single site over a period of at least a few years. The number of times that the position of rising or setting was obscured by cloud for example cannot be known, but each occasion could potentially have added a year to the project. Given the scale and physical effort behind the endeavour it is unlikely that they would have settled for any approximations.

It is the impressive physical stature of the stones that draws attention, but I find the idea that an ancient society was able to make a big plan and stick to it over many years more fascinating personally, especially since there was no tangible reward for this patience.

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